Dear Patti,

My father went to prison when I was 7 (I’m now 15) and I’ve been in group homes ever since. My mother died when I was 2. My fourth and latest foster mother is named Sheri. I’ve been with her for only two months and can already tell she’s the best foster mother I’ve had. She’s nice and friendly and tells me I’m really smart and can grow up to be whatever I want. I know I’m bright, but she’s the first foster mom to acknowledge it.

In spite of her kindness, I feel uncomfortable when I’m around her. I go back and forth between feeling intimidated, shy, withdrawn and resentful/argumentative. Sometimes I purposely disagree with her for no reason or refuse to be helpful. Other kids will make fun of her and I’ll laugh out loud on purpose to put her down. I keep thinking thoughts about how she’s a know-it-all, a bitch and too bossy and controlling, but I know she’s done nothing wrong and hasn’t been domineering or interfering at all. In fact, she’s been supportive and interested in my ideas and who I am.
  

In one of the previous homes where I lived, my foster mom was very controlling and mean. I felt like a second-class person around her and had to fight for any rights at all. I’m pretty sure I’m reacting to Sheri as if she’s the old one. I don’t want to but I can’t seem to help it. Sometimes Sheri even looks and smells like the other one. I don’t think it’s really true. I want to move on from old history and drama. I want the ability to have new relationships. I’ve been in counseling twice before and can go when I want. One time it was pretty good and the other time it sucked but I’m willing to try again.

    

  — Parisella

Dear Parisella,

I agree with both you and your foster mom; you are intelligent. You’re also self-reflective and it’s clear you want to mature and grow. I understand. You want to heal from the pain and insecurity of past traumas so they won’t interfere with your life today. That’s wonderful and an excellent choice, but oftentimes when people move forward it’s not without the awkward weight of emotional baggage.
  

You’ve already taken the critical step of realizing Sheri is treating you just fine, but you’re emotionally reacting as if she were a cruel carbon copy of her predecessor. This is called transference. The more you acknowledge and experience your repressed feelings toward your foster mom, the less power those historic feelings will exert on your present feelings toward Sheri.

In order to reduce the tendency to transfer your feelings onto others, I recommend you attend professional counseling. Find a therapist you trust and feel connected to. Keep in mind, however, there’s a good possibility you’ll eventually transfer feelings onto your therapist as well. That’s often part of the therapeutic process which your therapist will guide you through. The goal is for the two of you to create a safe, private space in which you carefully examine old memories and feel painful and negative emotions. In counseling, you’ll undoubtedly explore your fear of becoming close and intimate with Sheri, leaving you vulnerable to being hurt and abandoned.
  

While you’re waiting to get into counseling, try this exercise. Write down all of the traits— both good and bad—that characterize your previous foster mother. On a separate piece of paper, write down all of the good and bad traits which Sheri exhibits. After reviewing both lists, write down the behaviors from your prior foster’s mom’s list that you’re currently transferring onto Sheri. Look clearly at the difference.
   

Next, choose a negative trait from your prior foster mom’s list and remember a specific time when she exhibited that trait and caused you to feel mistreated. See the experience in your mind’s eye and journal it. Feel your anger and hurt. At your own pace, do this exercise with each negative trait and you’ll begin to understand where all of this is rooted. Share this experience with your new therapist.

Don’t let the past interfere with your new relationships and others to come. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.